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The long road to justice for Timor-Leste's sex abuse victims

The case of Richard Daschbach must make the tiny Catholic-majority nation confront its dark past

The long road to justice for Timor-Leste's sex abuse victims

Richard Daschbach waves from a police van before starting his trial on Feb. 22. (Photo: YouTube)

Published: February 26, 2021 10:14 AM GMT

Updated: February 26, 2021 10:15 AM GMT

Finally, the wheels of justice for scores of Timorese sex abuse victims of self-confessed pedophile former priest Richard Daschbach have started to move, albeit slowly.

A court in Timor-Leste started the trial of Daschbach, 84, on Feb. 22 before it was adjourned the next day until March 22 when both sides will testify before the judges.

Daschbach, a US citizen and former priest and missionary from the Society of the Divine Word, is the first clergyman in the tiny Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation to face a sex abuse trial. He faces 14 counts of child abuse including sex crimes, child pornography and domestic violence. If convicted, he faces 20 years in jail.

In the US, he faces wire fraud charges and Interpol has listed him in a red notice as a fugitive international criminal.

The case of Richard Daschbach is an extraordinary example of falling from grace for a celebrity missionary who was once revered in Timorese Catholic communities as well as social, political and religious circles.

Despite his defrocking from the priesthood by the Vatican in 2018 following credible evidence and his own confessions of child abuse, he still enjoys hero status in Timor-Leste and many continue to believe the “great American” is a victim of falsehood and propaganda.

Without the colossal courage of sex abuse victims and the advocacy groups supporting them, it would be impossible to charge and prosecute Daschbach for his monstrous, predatory crimes against children and women using the fronts of his so-called humanitarian work.

It was even unthinkable to hold to account a man who enjoyed the blessings of ruling elites as well as the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in the country. The Church not only receives state funding but is also an influential force in the nation’s socioeconomic and political discourses thanks to its support for the nation’s independence from Indonesia in 1999.

For decades after arriving in the former Portuguese colony in 1966, Daschbach established himself as a great missionary, social activist and cultural enthusiast with expertise in local culture and language. He was close to Timorese pro-independence groups and supported their independence struggle.

In 1992, he set up Topu Honis (Guide to Life), a two-unit shelter home for orphans, homeless and extremely poor children, disabled adults and women fleeing domestic violence, in Oecusse, a Timorese exclave just across the border from Indonesia. There were about 600 children and adults in its two locations: the young ones in the mountainous hamlet of Kutet and teenagers in Mahata on the coast.

During Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste from 1975-99, more than 200,000 people died of hunger, diseases and killings. The shelter home provided a ray of hope for many fleeing violence and hunger. During the UN referendum on independence in 1999, hundreds of refugees took shelter in the center as pro-Indonesian militia launched a bloody campaign to scare off Timorese people not to vote for independence.

In independent Timor-Leste, Daschbach was hailed a great hero, humanitarian and communicator. His celebrity stature drew many including academics, journalists, UN officials, ambassadors and politicians alike. Foreigners adopted orphans from the shelter and foreign donors supported the shelter with hefty amounts.

Current Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak and former president Xanana Gusmao are known to be good friends of Daschbach.

But no one ever knew the darkest secret of the shelter: the so-called savior preyed on and sexually abused young girls who endured trauma and cried in silence, fearing a backlash and being sent back home.

The Vatican and the Society of the Divine Word only started probing allegations against him when a former inmate emailed the Vatican to reveal his sex crimes.   

Following his defrocking, Daschbach returned to the orphanage, refused to give up his ministry and had to be removed by the authorities. He never expressed any remorse for his heinous acts.

Initially, the local clergy including his fellow Society of the Divine Word confreres in Oecusse supported Daschbach and even decried punitive measures against him. It is probably because they didn’t believe a great man like him could ever commit such crimes, but they were proved wrong and backed off.

Explosive interview

Daschbach remained legally untouched thanks to his connections at various levels of the state. The scenario started to unravel in 2019 when Fokupers, a Timorese advocacy group that supports women and children, published an interview of a victim detailing his abuses.

The interview was published as a scoop in Tempo Timor, a leading newspaper, on Feb. 1, 2019, and it exploded like a bombshell and made headlines in local and international media.

The victim, who used the pseudonym Ana, gave vivid details about years of abuses by Daschbach on every girl in the shelter.

"A list with the names of the girls was on his door, so we knew when it was our turn. All the girls had to go. I don't think there were exceptions. It happened every day during his afternoon naps and the night," Ana said.

"It was our fear of him that made us do what he wanted. The most shocking thing was that all the girls remained completely silent about it."

Now after many years of silence and cover-ups, the cases of terrible sexual abuses by Daschbach are being fought in court thanks to a group of dedicated human rights lawyers of legal consultancy firm JUS and advocacy group Fokupers. They not only deserve praise from us but sincere support to claim victory.

Many poor orphan girls like Ana didn’t deserve such humiliating trauma that continues to plague their physical and mental health. There are hundreds of child victims in Timor-Leste. A 2015 study by the Asia Foundation found that three out of four children are physically or sexually exploited.

The Catholic Church in many parts of the world has been grappling to clear up the mess from massive clerical sex abuse scandals, forcing Pope Francis to issue apologies to victims, adopt a “zero tolerance” policy and use a strict mechanism to deal with abuse cases. 

Sadly, Timor-Leste has been one of countries where sex abuse cases met with deafening silence and cover-ups until the Daschbach case exploded. Even after the revelations, there were attempts from the local clergy to back the pedophile at the expense of the poor victims.

Time has come for the society and the state in Timor-Leste to confront and make amends for the dark past regarding sexual abuse. Not just in the Daschbach case, there must be strong efforts to probe hidden cases of abuse within and outside the Church and to prosecute perpetrators irrespective of their status. 

No matter how long and winding the road for justice is, Timor-Leste must choose right over wrong to bring an end to historic injustices done to innocent children.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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